Sunday, April 08, 2007

I know more about Reading than I want to

This atmospheric picture by Tom Morris shows the old Reading ground at Elm Park. It's reminiscent of Sam Bartram being stranded on the pitch in the fog, although the keeper is, I think, Andy Petterson

In his Ali G phase the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen once said about Wales, 'I don't know much about Wales, but I hear it's crap.' I know more than I want to about Reading and I know it's crap.

My first memories of Reading are as the first major train stop out of London on the way to holidays in Cornwall. It seemed a sleepy sort of place with a third division (south) football team. It was known for making agricultural machinery and biscuits and it had a university with a specialism in agriculture and food. It was a kind of gateway to the west country. Indeed, when one of our daughters went to live there (and manage the railway station) decades later, some of the older inhabitants still spoke with an accent that sounded vaguely west country.

More intellectual types associated it with Oscar Wilde and the Ballad of Reading Gaol and the prison is still there, a forbidding presence in the middle of town. Oh, and Marianne Faithful went to Holy Joe's, the Catholic girls school up by the University and then followed a career path not unknown to former convent school girls. The football team never did very much: Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch went there once from Maidenhead, but blandishments to support his local team counted for nothing against the attractions of Arsenal.

Well, today, the biscuit making has gone and Reading is a thrusting, dynamic etc. town in the M4/Thames Valley corridor. I was talking to someone brought up in the town last week and she reckoned the heart and soul had been ripped out of it and the Oracle Shopping Centre represented modern commercialism at its worst.

But there's some serious money in and around modern Reading. Kendrick is one of the best independent girls' schools in the country, always a sign that a town is doing well (although I understand that they always had a formidable hockey team, especially if you had to play against them in goal). Vodafone is just down the road in Newbury, not far from where my father's cousin Ted (who introduced him to Charlton) used to work in the paper mills which have long since gone.

Some of the money in Reading is very discreet, like the tycoon father of a friend of mine who lives in the town's environs. (In fact, in an odd sort of way it's all very discreet: it's the only town in England I know of outside London that has a permanent CIA station). At nearby Henley, the wealth is more visible, but still understated.

But one person who has been prepared to get his wad out in the name of football is Reading chairman John Majedski. Having made his pile with auto trader magazines, he spent sensibly to build up Reading as a club. He could see that the window of opportunity was there. The social geography of Reading was ripe for a top drawer football club. Robert Maxwell could dimly see the same thing with his half baked plan for a merger of Oxford and Reading playing at Didcot as Thames Valley Royals.

Majedski has enjoyed it, and why shouldn't he, but it hasn't been one big ego trip (he would sell if the price was right). He built them a super new stadium and he chose managers well, our own Alan Pardew being followed by economics graduate Steve Coppell who is an Englishman who could manage England.

On a slow news day before the start of the season, Sky Sports News asked me to do a feature on Reading and I had no hesitation in forecasting that they would stay up without difficulty. One of their strengths in comparison to us is their midfield with Steve Sidwell having been a target for some time.

So tomorrow the Premiership arrivistes play the South-East London team fighting to stay in the top flight. (Although according to the latest 4-4-2, 70 per cent of our supporters live in Kent, so perhaps we are more like Reading than we realise).

Of course, this isn't about social geography, it's about 95 minutes or so on a football pitch, one team still harbouring Uefa cup ambitions, one trying to survive. But Reading as a town makes me uneasy. And so does tomorrow's game.


Blogger Inspector Sands said...

70%? That's got to include Bexley and Bromley, surely.

10:19 PM  

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